Britain declared war 100 years ago tonight , but some other countries had
already begun. On July 29, a Hungarian painter, Béla Zombory-Moldován, was
on holiday at the seaside resort of Novi, on the Croatian coast, then part
of the Austro-Hungarian empire. Suffering from a hangover, he had slipped
out in the early morning for a swim from the spit. The bathing attendant
approached, and told him, in halting Hungarian, that he must say goodbye.
“Why? You’re not leaving, are you?” “Leaving? I must go in the army. There
is going to be a war.”
It was the first Béla had heard of it. On the door of the bathing station was
posted a notice giving call-up dates by year of birth. He realised he had to
report for service by August 4.
From the muster, he was sent immediately to fight the Russians, Britain’s
allies. In the first two weeks of fighting, the Austro-Hungarian monarchy
lost 400,000 men, killed, wounded or captured. (Over the course of the war,
its losses were nearly three times worse than ours.) A few days after he
first saw action, Zombory-Moldován was shelled “as though the earth has
collided with another planet, and I am caught between the two”.
Bleeding from his head, he was carried to a nearby castle and laid upon “the
silk covers of a bed covered by gilded griffins”. The Russians were coming,
so they soon had to flee. As he struggled down the stairs, the artist in him
noticed the marble fireplace, the tapestries and the paintings, “huge Dutch
still-lifes with hares and pheasants”. Although he later served behind the
lines, this was the last time he fought.
So the strength of this book is not as an account of combat – though the few
pages devoted to the subject are brilliant – but to the effect of war on one
sensitive young man and on everything and everybody. There is a freshness
and strangeness to the book, partly related to the unusual circumstances in
which it was written. Zombory-Moldován, a conservative-minded man, was a
successful artist between the two world wars, but lost favour and his job
after the Communists seized Hungary in the late Forties. He spent his later
years quietly painting in the country. There he secretly wrote a memoir of
his youth and war. He died in 1967 and his widow kept the manuscript hidden.
His grandson discovered it in 2013 and now has translated and edited it for
The author was writing privately, recapturing a lost world. The book is not
polemical, and does not engage with post-war political debates. Instead, it
conveys the dislocation of the soldier. As Béla went off to fight, he was
cheered. He marched his platoon past his lodging-house and arranged for his
soldiers to do an “eyes- right” for the housemaids: “The girls’ eyes shone
A few weeks later, when he returned, a girl clapped her hand to her mouth at
the fearful sight of him and the principal at the art school where he taught
told him that he was not fit for work and would be paid nothing. His parents
were loving, but he could not settle with them: “The patterns of the
familiar chaise-longue’s plush upholstery were interwoven with the bare
stumps of the trees in the Magierov forest, by glazed eyes staring into
There is a marvellous scene in a country district, where his uncle, a Catholic
priest, honours him with a feast among a crowd of admiring rustics who
wonder at his sword (“It’s what makes a man fit for court,” says one).
Eventually the heat, the merriment and smell of pork fat are all too much
for him and he has to rush out in the middle of his uncle’s speech of
welcome and be sick on the dung-heap: “What kind of hero lets himself be
beaten by a boiled sausage?”
Alone with his uncle during his stay, Béla discussed the war more deeply, and
questioned the optimism which he found among “those aged around 50… fat ones
especially”. Zombory-Moldován endorsed the strategy of his country’s
enemies, which is often criticised today: “I think the West have got it
right when they count on nervous exhaustion. Their geographical situation,
their wealth and their greater populations will enable them to hold out
longer than we can… If we haven’t won this war within a year [he was
speaking in March 1915], we are lost.” They were, eventually.
In a few weeks, Zombory-Moldován’s hair went grey (he was 30). He would look
through the windows of the artists’ café he used to frequent and see his
former companions, who had avoided military service, drinking inside. He
would not go in. He was like a ghost.
The only comfort he found was staying on the Adriatic coast. One day he found
a place where “perfect waves” formed in a small bay. From watching them
intently, he “hoped to be able to abstract the wave”, and draw it. “I was
alone, and nature scattered her beauty before me. All I had to do was pick
it up and present it to mankind, in all his stupidity.”
Poor Béla: the sea could serve as a metaphor for his predicament. It was the
sea that made him feel most free and which best inspired his creativity. As
a result of the empire’s dismemberment in 1919, Hungary lost its right to
any sea; and because of the Soviet takeover after the Second World War, men
like Zombory-Moldován had few chances to travel to any coast. He lived out
his days by a lake, effectively exiled from the civilisation which, a
century ago today, had so suddenly tottered.
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